Public Affairs

Fair employment for teachers

Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee, Chris Lyttle MLA, writes on his proposal for a Private Members’ Bill to include teachers in fair employment legislation.

It is difficult to comprehend but despite employment discrimination on the grounds of religious belief being outlawed in Northern Ireland by the Fair Employment (NI) Act (FEA) in 1976, the Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order (FETO) 1998 continues to permit discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in the recruitment of teachers.  

There is increasing support for the inclusion of teachers in fair employment protection and that’s why I have issued a public consultation on a proposed Private Member’s Bill to remove the exception of teachers from FETO.

The FEA outlawed discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion in employment, however, section 37 set out a number of exceptions, including clergy or ministers of religion, employment for the purposes of a private household and employment as a teacher in a school.  

It also contained provision for exceptions where ‘the essential nature of the job requires it be done by a person holding, or not holding, a particular religious belief’. This Act was amended and supplemented by the Fair Employment (NI) Act 1989 which introduced provisions relating to indirect discrimination and employment monitoring and review requirements but still the teachers’ exception remained.

FETO consolidated earlier Acts, continuing the prohibition of discrimination in employment and extending it to the provision of goods, facilities and services and to the selling and leasing of premises. In 2003, this provision was narrowed to recruitment and promotion as a teacher to meet the requirements of an EU Directive on equal treatment in employment. Other aspects of employment, terms and conditions and access to training are now covered by fair employment legislation.  

The consequence of the teacher exception from FETO is schools can use religious belief as grounds on which to discriminate between candidates for teaching posts. Almost all workers can rely on legislation to protect them from discrimination on grounds of their faith, however, this protection is denied to teachers and whilst employers in Northern Ireland must register with the Equality Commission and monitor the composition of their workforce if they employ 11 or more employees, this does not apply to the teaching workforce.

Recent research carried out by the UNESCO Education Centre at Ulster University suggests only two per cent of teachers in Catholic primary schools are from a Protestant background, and in primary schools with mainly Protestant pupils, only seven per cent of teachers are from a Catholic background. 

The Equality Commission of Northern Ireland has recommended the removal of this exception at secondary level and that early consideration be given to removing it at primary level, as it considers it is no longer acceptable to exclude the entire teaching workforce from Fair Employment legislation covering all other occupations.  

It has also recommended teachers should be included in monitoring and review requirements and noted if the exception is removed, schools may still be able to rely on the exception where the essential nature of the job requires it to be done by a person holding a particular religious belief.  

I am therefore asking if people agree teachers should be included in the FETO and propose to make this change by way of a Private Member’s Bill at the Assembly before the end of this mandate if possible. The consultation is at www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/DRMZZ78 and the closing date is June 10, 2021.

Chris Lyttle is an Alliance MLA for East Belfast and Chairperson of the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee.

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